Interview with John Arena
Note from Peter: We’ve been loving the contributions of John Arena here on Pizza Quest for the past four years. He not only is a mentor to many, and an educator, but his columns on what pizzeria operators need to know can serve as a master template for everyone in the business. Since most of you already all of this, I’ll let the following interview fill in the gaps and it will also help any new readers catch up with John and why he is so beloved in the pizza world.
PQ (Pater): John, you’ve been a regular fixture here on Pizza Quest for a number of years now, and our readers love your guest columns. You’re now kind of viewed by many pizzeria operators as the wise elder, with a high pizza IQ, and an inspirational generosity of spirit. But that kind of reputation doesn’t happen overnight. Can you give us a short version of your journey and the evolution of Metro Pizza and also, if you would, explain that sign over your oven, “The pizza guy and the other pizza guy”?
John: A famous former Governor of California once said, “It all starts with choosing the right parents.” I was born into a pizza family. My father has an incredible work ethic and at nearly 89 years old still works in the pizzeria every day. My mother’s favorite phrase was, “I see possibilities.” Put those traits together and you have the heart of entrepreneurial spirit.
My cousin Sam and I started working together in our family pizzeria on September 7, 1967, splitting 50 cents per hour offered by my Uncle Rocco. We’ve been partners ever since. In 1980 we headed for Las Vegas to liberate ourselves from the watchful eyes of our family and, with a typical New York-centric world view, set out to introduce the west to what we thought of as “real pizza.” To our initial shock and eventual delight, we discovered that Las Vegas was populated by people from all over the world who had their own unique and valid opinions about what a pizza should be. We decided early on that the way forward for us was to learn and incorporate as much as possible from the various regional pizza exponents and, rather than fight about who is right or wrong, embrace the core values of what makes pizza the world’s great communal food.
When we were growing up everyone in our neighborhood knew us because the local pizzeria is such a central part of any community. Of course, when we moved to Nevada we were starting from scratch but, very quickly, people started to recognize us, not by our names but by our chosen craft. Las Vegas was still a small town back then and everywhere we went people would call out, “ Hey, It’s the pizza guy…and the other pizza guy.” We grew up in a unique sub-culture where being a “pizza guy,” or a “pie man” as they used to be called, was something to aspire to. Fifty years after I made my first pizza there is still nothing I would rather be and if my obituary simply says, “He was a good pizza guy,” it will be a life well lived.
PQ: You’ve written both here and in other articles, about some of the major influencers in your life, in a sense, your pizza heroes. If you could summarize, say, the top 5 or 6 influencers and what you learned from them, who would they be?
John: Wow it’s tough to pick just 6 because I’m inspired by every pizza maker who adds their own unique perspective to our craft. Of course there are some who really stand out for different reasons: I would have to start with Chris Decker, who I am lucky to work with every day. He can take the most basic ingredients and transform them in ways most people would never imagine. Chris Bianco, for his unique combination of talent and humility.
Phil Korshak, who you interviewed a while back here on Pizza Quest, is a pizza poet and artist who, for the good of all of us, has chosen pizza as his medium. Jonathan Goldsmith, the apostle of Neapolitan pizza, for his unwavering belief in the importance of tradition and culture. We remain steadfast friends in spite of very different philosophies. Giulio Adriani, because his extraordinary palate enables him to improve on dishes that you thought were already perfect. Roberto Caporuscio, who has, through his teaching efforts, become the Johnny Appleseed of Neapolitan pizza making in America.
Michele D’Amelio, an amazing talent who lets his work speak for itself and continues to grow beyond the confines of one style. The incomparable Tony Gemignani, teacher, author, business man, competitor, culinary innovator. No American comes close to his level of accomplishment. Add to that his generous mentorship of people like Laura Meyer, a brilliant pizza maker in her own right, and Tony’s impact will be felt for generations. Of course for me all roads lead back to my father, who taught me to never be satisfied with simply knowing how to do something. For Dad, the key to personal growth is all about “why.” In spite of growing up in a rule bound baking tradition, my dad has always insisted that all progress comes from a willingness to ask why. His personal mantra of leaving everything that we touch in a better state than we found it has literally sent me around the world in search of improvement.
PQ: What do you and your business partners look for in prospective employees and managers? What does it take for someone to rise up the ladder in your, or perhaps, even in others’ pizzerias (or in restaurants and businesses in general)?
John: Success in the world of pizza, or anything else, is about immersion. You must be willing to commit to your chosen field as a grand obsession. Most of us claim we want to be great at something but the real question is always, what are you willing to sacrifice? Take someone like my friend and collaborator Scott Wiener, for example. He has climbed inside the coal oven at Lombardi’s. Ask yourself if you are willing to literally and figuratively go into the mouth of the oven in search of knowledge? Why has Scott risen to be one of the industry’s top ambassadors in such a short time? Because he is unflinching in his quest for knowledge and remains open to where the search leads him.
You claim that you want success? Throw away your calendar, your watch, and your assumptions. Open yourself up to true immersion and be willing to go wherever that takes you.
PQ: When all is said and done, what would you like your legacy to be
John: I grew up in an era when very few pizza makers were willing to help each other to learn and grow. If I am remembered at all it will probably be for encouraging a spirit of collaboration. I’m vain enough to wish for immortality, and I’m not likely to achieve it through my culinary talent. But if I inspire just one person to share knowledge that they would have otherwise kept to themselves perhaps a part of me will continue on.
PQ: What and who are some of the places (or people) you will be looking towards for new inspiration and continued knowledge and personal growth? Where, for instance, have you not yet visited that is on your wish list?
John: There are great practitioners all over the globe but right now I’m looking forward to an annual trip to Chicago to spend time with Jonathan Goldsmith at Spacca Napoli. While there I’m hoping to also get a lesson or two from Tony Troiano at JB Alberto’s and the Rago brothers of Panino’s. My summer wish list is to spend time with Andrew Scudera at Goodfells’s in Staten Island and, of course, Nino Coniglio, the mad genius at Williamsburg Pizza.
In the fall I hope to visit Michael LaMarca to learn from him and see his beloved “Tribe,” in the World Series. Further afield I’m always eager to return to Brazil and dive into the amazing pizza culture of Sao Paulo. Looking to the future there is tremendous opportunity in China, of course and, barring political obstacles, I believe Cuba will be a new frontier for both American-style and traditional pizza.
PQ: So, when people are in Las Vegas and want to find you or, at least, have the Metro experience, where should they go? And, also, for those who live in the area, how can they sign up for your pizza course at UNLV?
John: My UNLV course is the first 3 credit course of its kind available in America, but is currently only open to enrolled upper level students at the University’s School of Hospitality. Don’t get discouraged, though, as it will soon be available in an exciting E-format. The course will be an interactive curated text that will include links to video interviews, demos, and archival footage. The most unique feature is that it will automatically update over time so that students can rely on it as a perpetually evolving resource. Buy it once and it will be updated forever. As for the Metro experience, anyone traveling to Las Vegas should always feel free to contact me at Johnnypizzaguy@gmail.com so we can try to meet up and make some pizzas together. I’m completely serious. I believe our craft should be transmitted from person to person.
PQ: John, thanks for all you do for this industry and for being a friend to so many. I look forward to your guest columns and to watching you on upcoming Pizza Quest videos and, of course, working with you at the various conferences we are so lucky to attend. Continued success, my friend!
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Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.
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